This June, when foster youth in Michigan graduate from high school and apply for federal higher education funds, they’ll find that money is painfully tight.
By the end of February, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had already awarded 206 Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) to help students pay for tuition and expenses and was fast approaching the total number of vouchers, 452, that they awarded in 2007.
“We realized that we were going through too much money too fast,” says Ann Rossi, Lutheran Social Services ETV program coordinator, and “by summer, the busiest time of year, we’d be running out of money.” Funds are awarded as applications come in.
There wasn’t a cut in funding, says Shannon Gibson, DHHS Independent Living Coordinator, of the federal program administered by states. Instead, there’s an increase in Michigan students — more foster youth are staying in college and reapplying for vouchers, and Rossi anticipates an increase in incoming freshman this summer. So, to make sure that every student gets something in 2008, ETV grants will max out at $2,500 per person, half the maximum 2007 award.
The ETV program is based on need, but so far, Rossi and the Michigan DHHS have been able to award the full $5,000 to all who applied. The upcoming school year may prove difficult for foster youth who have depended on federal funding, including ETV vouchers, to stay in school. In response to this increased demand, DHHS is encouraging Michigan’s universities to help address the needs of this unique population.
Universities often assume that students have supportive parents behind them, says Dr. John Seita, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University who specializes in foster care. But former foster youths struggle to finance their education, budget money, and handle practical issues like finding places to stay during university holidays. Without family to fall back on, even a small mistake can be devastating, says Seita.
“They’re alone in the world when the odds are stacked against them,” Seita says.
One Michigan university has answered the call. Starting in the fall of 2008, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo will provide a full-tuition scholarship for any foster care youth who pays for their room and board with federal grants. The room and board payment, “meets the university’s needs,” says Mark Delorey, director of financial aid and scholarships, and “allows us to put together a program with tremendous benefits.” Some of those benefits: dorms that are open during university holidays, on-campus mentoring, and an administration that’s sensitive to their needs and concerns.
Ultimately, Delorey wants to provide foster youth with the support needed to graduate on time. “Historically this group has had a lot of difficulties in persisting through college,” says Delorey. “By making sure that the most vulnerable students have the environment to be successful, we’re making sure that everybody is getting the support they need.”
Called the Seita Scholarship, Western Michigan’s new program is named for John Seita, who grew up in foster care and understands the challenges foster youth face as they ‘age out’ of the system.
Seita says helping foster youth access college is not an issue of charity, but of campus diversity. Foster youth are a culturally distinct group and their experiences create a unique way of viewing and dealing with the world, says Seita. Addressing foster youth can impact the university as a whole.
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